UPDATE: On July 21, 2008, NBC officially announced that Jay Leno’s final broadcast as Tonight Show host will be on May 29, 2009, with Conan O’Brien debuting as his successor on June 1. For details of the announcement at NBC’s press tour, see EW.com’s Hollywood Insider blog.
On most Sundays in Hermosa Beach, Calif., patrons of the Comedy & Magic Club have come to expect a couple of things from the popular haunt for Hollywood stand-ups — a two-drink minimum and an hour-long routine from Jay Leno. On his mind tonight: easy, greatest-hits gags about the Menendez brothers, Michael Jackson, and the Spears clan. Dapperly dressed in a blue suit and tie, Leno fires them off as if he’s doing his nightly monologue. ”Jamie Lynn Spears just got her GED,” he quips. ”Or as Britney likes to refer to her, the brainiac!” The packed house of mostly fortysomething white patrons erupts with laughter. ”O.J. had a catchphrase — that’s why he got off,” Leno continues, invigorated. ”The one for the Menendez brothers never caught on: ‘They killed their dad, it’s not so bad!”’
The jokes are a little stale. Oh, let’s face it: These are one-liners from the Paleozoic era. Leno’s told variations on them for years as host of The Tonight Show. Yet in a rich, rich irony, the 58-year-old comedian is currently the most coveted, sought-after man in television. Not just late night — the entire television industry. With less than 15 months to go before Late Night‘s Conan O’Brien, 45, succeeds Leno to become the fifth helmer in the 54-year history of NBC’s The Tonight Show, the suitors are swarming Leno as if they were contestants on The Bachelor. As the offers pour in, it’s seeming more and more likely that the Undisputed King of Late Night will jaywalk to the competition and do battle against the network he once ruled.
”It’s just a matter of what Jay really wants to do. What’s his Act 3?” says one high-powered talent agent, who, like most people, would only talk anonymously about Leno out of fear that being identified would hinder future client negotiations. ”Does he want to go to another network? Does he want to go into syndication? Is there some kind of online venture or with video on demand? There are a ton of plays out there.”
And the final rose goes to…
NEXT PAGE: ”Absolutely, he should get the hell out of that joint,” says a veteran late-night producer. ”He’ll be richer than a sheik and he won’t have to eat NBC’s s—.”